Passover is the reason our spring break isn’t at the same time as that of other colleges. In all seriousness, for the non-Jewish Binghamton population (about 70 percent) who are not familiar with Passover, Jewish people celebrate this holiday every spring to commemorate the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Though many holidays in Judaism celebrate our survival as a nation — we’ve survived a lot of bad stuff — the nature of Passover traditions is what makes it the most intriguing Jewish holiday of the year.
Lani Levi, a sophomore majoring in graphic design, explains what makes Passover so special to her.
“It’s a tedious holiday where you have to be very careful with the rules, but overall the rules are meant to symbolize an event that the entire Jewish nation experiences together,” Levi said. “And there are so many small things that we have to do to always keep the memory of that in our mind.”
One extremely central aspect of Passover is the commandment to eat matzah (Hebrew for unleavened bread) instead of chametz (Hebrew for leavened bread or any product containing traces of it). We eat matzah because, according to the Torah, the Jewish Old Testament, when the Jews left Egypt they did not have enough time for their bread to rise, resulting in unleavened bread.
The holiday of unleavened bread entails a few things. Firstly, scrubbing your kitchen to the bone so that it is clean of all chametz. Then, selling the chametz or burning any that is found in your house the day before Passover begins because you are forbidden to have it in your possession.
Lastly, eight days of constipation because matzah becomes a substitute for anything that you would normally eat with bread, and then some, such as matzah pizza, matzahbri (matzah soaked in water and egg and then fried — it’s a delicacy) and simple matzah and cream cheese sandwiches. Eating matzah is not all that bad, though; think of it as the largest, crummiest edible cardboard-tasting cracker ever created.
Benny Summers, a senior majoring in history, feels that eating matzah and not eating chametz is an essential part of the Passover experience.
“Every holiday in every religion has something that sets it apart from other holidays,” Summers said. “And not eating chametz sets Passover apart from every other Jewish holiday during the year.”
When doing activities during Passover, it can be a hassle to remember to bring matzah-filled snacks with you, but Summers thinks otherwise.
“I always thought it was more fun to bring Passover snacks to the movies or the zoo than buying food at those places when it’s not Passover,” Summers said. “It makes me look forward to doing those things even more because I have to specially prepare for them.”
Though boxes of matzah lining the shelves in your local grocery stores is the most outwardly recognizable sign that Passover has arrived, the preparation and execution of the Seder is the tell-tale sign in Jewish homes that it’s time to throw out that week-old box of Cheez-Its on your desk.
Translated from Hebrew, “Seder” means “order,” referring to the particular order in which the 15-step ritual to retell the story of our Exodus is performed. Traditionally, Jewish families gather together on the first and second nights of Passover to conduct the basic structure of the Seder with their own twists. The Seder can last between two and six hours, depending on how little sanity your family has. Many families like to create activities to keep everyone, especially the younger participants, interested.
Maya Yair, a sophomore majoring in political science, shared two of her family traditions that successfully managed to get people excited about the Seder over the years.
“My uncle, who typically leads our 40-person Seder, likes to begin by asking everyone questions like what the Seder means to us personally,” Yair said. “He’s very philosophical and enjoys finding new meaning in our tradition so it doesn’t feel repetitive.”
At every Seder, there’s generally one person who leads, and their performance can usually make or break a Seder.
Another crucial aspect of the Seder experience is the food we use for rituals to reenact the slavery experience. For example: dipping bitter herbs in salt water to symbolize the tears we cried as slaves and the bitterness of our lives as slaves in Egypt. We also eat charoset — a mixture of apples, cinnamon, nuts and wine — which, when mixed and grounded together, symbolizes the cement we used to build the pyramids for the slave drivers.
Yair’s Persian family playfully hits each other with scallions when they sing the song “Daienu” (translated into English as “enough”) to symbolize the whips the Egyptians used to hit the Jews as they worked. But there are so many rules and rituals that it’s hard not to trivialize some of them.
Sometimes the best way to truly capture the essence of Passover is to go to a Seder (if you have never been to one before), drink the four cups of wine that every man and woman of Israel is commanded to drink and embrace the commemoration of the Exodus.